Future, Present, & Past:

~~ Giving itself latitude and leisure to take any premise or inquiry to its furthest associative conclusion.
Critical~~ Ready to apply, to itself and its object, the canons of reason, evidence, style, and ethics, up to their limits.
Traditional~~ At home and at large in the ecosystem of practice and memory that radically nourishes the whole person.

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Monday, January 17, 2011

The myth of the mythical Jesus (and of the disinterested investigator)

A good discussion on Mark Goodacre's blog about the Jesus-never-lived myth. For those who don't know, this is the curious notion that Paul invented Jesus more or less out of whole cloth (sometimes with a liberal dose of Hellenistic mystery-religion, sometimes straight out of the ferment of post-Maccabean Judaism), and that the Gospel-writers came along later and retrofitted the character Jesus with some biographical details (depending on the theorist, this may or may not have been Paul's intent).

This dovetails with two other recent posts on the same theme (they seem unrelated but there must be a meme revival going around): The first is from Quodlibeta, the second from Exploring our Matrix.

This stuff strikes me as as close to historical revisionism as one can respectably come these days. Shakespeare/Bacon/de Vere/(choose your favorite)-- this one is making a comeback. Fashions change, but one day I wonder what else will be subject to the debates of historians. The Holocaust? The moon landing? 9/11? (Addendum 1/19/11: reflecting upon Benoît's comment [below], I add that I do not consider these intellectually or morally equivalent.)

I happen to have a big ol' soft spot for minority views, so revisionism holds a certain fascination for me (I've read a bunch of Velilkovsky, for instance, and some global warming skepticism, and psychic research, and am always interested at finding the point at which the experts get their hackles raised). But I don't necessarily buy into these Fortean accounts. I read them for the little factoids they tend to select for, and for the humbling awareness they foster, that one is constantly dependent upon the say-so of experts. When you first realize this, it is tremendous splash of ice-cold alienation right in the face. Then you realize that you were always alienated, and now you know it-- and can start to negotiate your life differently.

But what about the true believers, who really do buy in? What can motivate a scholar to buck scholarly consensus like this? Probably any number of things, and in the case of the mythicists, it would be naive to reduce them to some lingering animus against Christianity--wouldn't it? I am sure if you ask them, nine out of ten will answer, like Dave Fitzgerald answers Jim McGrath, that they didn't start out a "mythicist;" they were persuaded by the evidence. I take this in the same spirit as I would the assurance that a scholar started out unpersuaded (or antagonistic) about Shakespearean authorship-controversy or 9/11 revisionism or whatever. ("Actually, I set out to prove that the case for Intelligent Design was nonexsitent; to my surprise...") It is not that I think these intellectual positions can't be honestly held. But can one honestly hold that one did nothing but weigh evidence, and weigh it exclusively on its own merits? How was it that you got so lucky as to just be capable of that degree of impartiality and incisiveness?

There's a potential red herring here, since this question has no direct bearing upon the truth or falsity of the positions in question. Edward de Vere could have written all the Shakespearean plays and poems, even if every last person convinced thereof was so persuaded because of resentment, and every last defender of 'the Stratford man' a paragon of disinterested integrity.

So, no, I don't presume that Fitzgerald or Richard Carrier started out just looking for another way to undermine Christianity and hit upon the mythicist hypothesis as the apparently best way, anymore than I think David Ray Griffin was already just looking for an excuse to accuse the U.S. Government, or "powerful forces within it" at any rate, of carrying out a false-flag operation to plunge us into a never-ending "War on Terror."

But I can't help but be struck by the weird audacity of the cause. I mean, sure, if you could finally prove, from documents yielded grudgingly by the CIA or somewhere, that Oswald Did Not Act Alone, that would certainly justify twenty or thirty years of scrounging in microfiche and being mocked by the culture at large. But if you could prove that the central figure of two millennia of Western culture never existed... knocking down Lenin's statue or the Berlin wall would be nothing compared to that. This may not be what motivates every argument Earl Doherty or G.A. Wells makes, but I'd be astonished if it hadn't occurred to them.

(Addendum: James McGrath has put up an index of his posts on Mythicism so far. Check it out).


  1. If you are an unbeliever there can be only one rational position; even if there was a Jesus the stories are false accretions and the foundation of a world religion is a myth that got out of hand, that took a 'noble lie' for bald truth.

    The more interesting question would be: what should the rational attitude of the believer be towards the evidence or towards what is proffered as such? Evidently the scholars disagree on this. What of those who take shelter under Kierkegaard's umbrella?

  2. This is a really surprising post. You allege a number of nefarious motivations behind a "cause" (already with the disparaging language) in a post where you have all the room to debate the contrary.

    You also equate the feasibility of the hypothesis in question with skepticism concerning the historical occurrence of the holocaust, 9/11/, and the moon landing (seriously?[and not just because of tact]).

    Then there's the question of how far your understanding of a historical Jesus goes: Was there a historical Jesus who even did half of the shit the Gospels claim he did? Because there are questions of physics and biology involved. Was there a historical Jesus known to the original apostles, but that Paul may've not have drawn on as so powerful a source? Or is it that there simply was never a man named Yeshoa who led a ministry in the Roman province of Palestine and the whole thing is myth?

    What's striking is that neither of these positions are antithetical to Christianity as a faith. How in God's name does a historical Christ mean anything to anyone with non-fundamentalist investments in Christian belief, including a writer heavily interested in ideas of metalepsis and myth as foundational for philosophy?

    Whether or not there was an actual Hebrew man named Yeshoa born to Miriyam in the backwaters of a Roman province, the religion need not follow from so much. This is why the Jesus-contra-Christian institutions move doesn't get one anywhere: there's no Jesus without the institutions. Or is there a Christ common to Paul and Nestor, regardless of either's specific articulation of that figure?

    That there is no historical Jesus, or at least one worth admitting, to me seems to open up spiritual horizons rather than close them. I like the Gospels' Christ more than Paul's Christ anyway :)

  3. Benoît,

    Thanks for this forthright comment.
    Yes: the mythicist position is ambiguous. One version says there was never any Jesus at all-- Paul made it all up. One version says, yes, there was a guy, may have been called Yeshua (why not?), but Paul began myth-making soon after his death (or after "the Easter event").

    part of my quarrel with mythicists is how they get to any of these scenarios, all of which seem transparently speculative to me. Speculation is fine; but I see here the equivalent of the "ditch" Lessing saw between historical and eternal considerations. Just as Lessing felt that one could not get from history to faith, I submit one cannot get from history to lack thereof. (I realize that this is oversimplistic and begs the question of the genesis of faith -- which also pertains to Ombhurbhuva's comment ("those under Kierkegaard's umbrella") -- but I'll leave this for now).

    You are right, too, to guess that I am willing to go quite a ways in the mythicists' direction. I am content to accept the canonical stories in the Gospels as the Church's stories. I think it is absurd to insist that someone declare themselves to believe in every last line, not least because there are manifest inconsistencies between versions, which (I believe) are there by design. At the same time, I am ready to imagine things biologically or physically incredible, since I do not believe that 'miracle' is a dirty word. Do I believe every miracle story that comes along? I do not. Do I believe such things simply do not and cannot not happen? I do not. (Sorry for all those negatives in the grammar there ... I'm sure you follow, though).

    I probably should have been more careful, but I really did not mean to ascribe any nefarious motives to anyone. I do think that the mythicist position is wrong, but I don't think it is absurd. I grant that I'm being way, way provocative in mentioning several counter-consensus positions in the same breath. I certainly do not think that Holocaust denial is the moral equivalent of denying Jesus' historicity! Nor do I think that thinking the Apollo landing happened in Death Valley can marshal arguments of the same robustness.


  4. (...cont'd):
    I know Christians who are utterly unfazed by the mythicist argument-- who shrug and say "So what?" One friend writes in his blog, regarding the atrocious Zeitgeist movies (at which, to be fair, many mythicists have also cringed): >"let's even pretend Jesus didn't exist -- we'd still have to explain, from that very place it began, the whole experience of the saints. You'd have to posit a "Jesus" or somebody exactly like him, in whom and through whom the movement of spirit first happened. His significance is not his mere existence,"

    While this seems to me to be very good sense, granting the mythicist case from the get-go does not seem to me to be a living option. I think the Church has to stand by the historicity of the resurrection, not because Jesus came back from the dead, but because the Father Really raised Jesus from the dead. (More specifics are important than just "coming back"-- and indeed, "coming back" may not be the best way to put it).

    Having said this, I am far more open to the notion that Christianity transmuted earlier religious motifs, that it fused star-lore and mystery-religions and what have you, than many Christians I know. (Though maybe I just don't get out enough.) Indeed, I assume this appropriation, this "syncretism" if you will. I assume it because in order to express what had happened, the Church had to have recourse to the cosmological languages available (even if it turned these inside-out).

    I thus find myself in close sympathy (I think) with at least half of what you say -- "he Jesus-contra-Christian institutions move doesn't get one anywhere: there's no Jesus without the institutions" -- but I see this as in decided tension (albeit perhaps a resolvable tension) with your other remark ("I like the Gospels' Christ more than Paul's Christ anyway"). Because to these institutions, there is no difference.

  5. Michael--

    My impression thus far though is that the scholars' disagreement is still a small affair. As we know, popular vote is no index, so this may not mean much. In any case, it is clear than for many, the 'lie' in question is to be considered far from noble.

    The question you ask -- what should the rational attitude of the believer be towards the evidence or towards what is proffered as such? -- is certainly the one I ask. It won't satisfy everyone, since many will insist on "No, Why/How did you become a believer in the first place?!"

    As to what stance to take-- see my comments above to Benoit.

  6. Here's an idea: I'm going to start a group based on the idea that some guy was the promised king to liberate the Jews from bondage. I want to make his story as impressive as possible. Let's see. I'll start by making him a bastard, that'll make a favorable impression. Then I'll have him be the follower of some other guy, a guy whose group utterly failed after the government beheaded him. And not only will I make a special point of having him also utterly fail to liberate anyone from anything, but I'll have him get arrested, flogged within an inch of his life, repudiated by the very people he's supposed to the liberator and king of, betrayed and abandoned by some of his followers, and humiliatingly tortured to death like a common criminal.

    Yeah, this has got to be propaganda; it's all just too good to be true.